#CamFest Speaker Spotlight

Alina Utrata

Alina Utrata is doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge where she is a Gates Cambridge scholar. Her research examines technology corporations, focusing on the political theory of the corporation and how Silicon Valley tech companies may be challenging or affecting the power of the state. She also hosts the podcast The Anti-Dystopians: The Politics Podcast about Tech.

She will be speaking in the Big tech: the new colonialists? panel on 29th March [hybrid].

Why does your research matter?

My research looks at contemporary technology corporations. I’m particularly interested in how corporations exert power, both over individuals and in reference to the state. I think, in politics, we’re used to thinking of states as being the only political entities that really affect things. But we can see both with modern day tech companies like Amazon or Google or historical companies like the British or Dutch East India Companies that corporations often have immense power, even in relation to the states that they are ostensibly hosted in. So I think it’s important to think about how corporations also have power, and act as political entities, and how we can best think of “democratising” or influencing them.

What attracted you to this subject?

I actually began my academic career in human rights and transitional justice, looking at how international tribunals affected historical memory in communities emerging from conflict. This led me to Belfast in Northern Ireland - my MA at Queen’s University Belfast looked at police perceptions of policing. What really stood out to me was how police officers were talking about how technology had changed their job and what it means to be a police officer, and ultimately the nature of state control. Cambridge Analytica was happening at the same time, so it just seemed like there were lots of things happening in that space. And that’s what caused me to pivot my research to technology corporations. 

Are big tech firms acting like colonialists and can you give an example?

One strand of my research looks at the space colonisation efforts of Silicon Valley figures like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. These men are explicitly using the language of colonialism to talk about taking over new worlds. But what is really striking is that if you look at some of the recent historical literature on companies involved in colonialism  - such as Philip Stern’s forthcoming Empire, Incorporated or William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy - there are really striking parallels in how European corporations behaved and often led the charge in historical colonising efforts and the actions of Blue Origin and SpaceX. Corporations involved in colonisation were not just subservient entities to their home states (and I’ve written more about it here). William Dalrymple also has an amazing podcast which talks about the British East India Company as well, which I highly recommend.

Is their power likely to be as enduring as that of states, given the fast pace of tech disruption [ie will the current leaders remain the leaders]?

That’s really hard to say. Companies can appear and disappear quite quickly, but they can also morph and stay around for longer than expected in different forms. If we look at the colonial company-states for instance - the British East India Company began as a relatively modest trading company that transformed into a gargantuan bureaucracy which ruled over wide swathes of India and then was eventually annexed into an arm of the British Empire. American colonial corporations, say, the Massachusetts Bay Company, started out as corporations and then turned into settler colonies, fought a war against their “home” state and transformed into an independent state of their own. Or the Hudson Bay Company which, at one point, was akin to a “company-state” - but then transformed into what we would today consider a traditional company. But then entities like universities, towns and cities have a “corporate” form as well, and they can be just as enduring as states might be. Cambridge University colleges always like to remind us how long they’ve been around for, and that is even through radical upheavals in the British state like the Civil War.

For the technology companies in particular, I wouldn’t be surprised if some companies like Facebook or even Google, for instance, were brought down by a crash in the online advertising bubble (and there’s a good book on the Subprime Attention Crisis here). But I think Amazon is likely to be here to stay for the long run.

The image of big tech has changed in a relatively short period - from being seen as disruptive and progressive, several leaders now seem to be bolstering authoritarian leaders. Has there been an evolution as they have become more corporate and more powerful or were they always like that but many people didn't see it?

I think, like most political entities, there is a dualism in what power can be used for. If you think of the state, for instance, it can be both a site of liberation and oppression. The state can protect or uphold your rights, but it can also repress you. The same is true for technology corporations - there was an emphasis on the positives they were doing in the early days, such as their tools being used by human rights activists. But those tools can also be used by authoritarian regimes. I think the important thing is to recognise that these corporations are political. Silicon Valley likes to claim they are “apolitical” or somehow neutral, and therefore they don’t have any responsibility about what their tools are used for or how they behave. But, of course, they’re political: and that means we have to consider the political impacts they have as well as who controls them.

Are there any signs of smaller states resisting big tech power?

I think it depends. Of course, any state can block a site like Facebook from operating in their jurisdiction — we saw that in Myanmar during the coup d’etat or with internet shutdowns in Sudan. But Facebook also blocked news on its site in Australia, and the government was outraged (and ultimately did change the legislation Facebook opposed). The important thing to remember, of course, is that states in the Global South are also embedded in wider economic and political structures of exploitation and extraction which makes it harder to “resist” powerful corporations from the Global North, the way the EU might go about doing so. So I think there are methods of resistance and an awareness that these technology companies aren’t just do-gooders. But I’d say it’s more a back and forth within embedded structures of power. 

Can government regulation keep up with technological change?

Jennifer Cobbe, who is one of my co-panelists, has a great discussion of this (and you can listen to us discuss this on my podcast as well) She says there’s this idea that the law has to keep up with technology. But in reality, law and technological innovation are intertwined and co-constituent processes. You wouldn’t get a lot of the software that exists today without the US patent office, for instance, for better or for worse. So I think, for me, the question is what types of regulation should states impose. But also what are other ways we can think of democratising institutions like corporations - or even universities! - where this technological innovation is happening.